Small worlds

The author of "Election" and "Joe College" picks five great books set in places where everyone knows everyone else's business.


Tom Perrotta
December 9, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)

You might not think that a factory commune in northern China has a whole lot in common with a middle-class suburb of Washington or a housing project in Dublin, Ireland, but surfaces can be deceptive. Small worlds share certain immutable characteristics, whether they're hardscrabble rural outposts, tight-knit urban neighborhoods or college towns in the middle of nowhere. You know the kind of place I'm talking about -- the neighbors are watching, people are talking and holding on to a secret seems just about as hard as letting go of a grudge. Even at the end of the 20th century -- an era marked by increasing urbanization and anonymity, rampant individualism and frayed communities -- novelists kept returning again and again to the "village" model of fiction. And why not? Isn't every novel its own small world?

In the Pond by Ha Jin
The lesser-known precursor to Jin's masterful novel "Waiting," this taut, disturbingly funny book tells the story of Shao Bin, a maintenance worker at the Harvest Fertilizer Plant in a remote province of China. When he's unfairly passed over for a better apartment, Bin -- a self-taught but genuinely talented artist -- declares intellectual war on the corrupt party bosses who control his fate. A hilarious political satire and an incisive portrait of a righteous but misguided man who triumphs in spite of himself, "In the Pond" also provides a bleakly memorable portrait of scheming, back stabbing and revenge in an industrial backwater.

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
A classic of American small-town literature, this beautiful novel tells a subtle, fragmented story of love, adultery and decline. The book is structured as a series of glimpses of the lovely and cultured second wife of Captain Forrester, one of the leading citizens of Sweet Water, "a town of which great things were expected." The rise and fall of Mrs. Forrester's -- and Sweet Water's -- fortunes over the course of several decades not only provide a capsule history of changing economic conditions along the American frontier; they also remind us of the long-term intimacy of small-town existence, the way people's lives slowly unfurl before the eyes of their neighbors.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The granddaddy of the campus novel, Amis' masterpiece remains extraordinarily fresh and funny nearly 50 years after its publication. Jim Dixon, Amis' clear-eyed but self-loathing protagonist, is torn between a desperate desire for tenure at the undistinguished provincial university where he teaches history, and an equally desperate desire to escape. The farcical plot is driven by the impossibility of keeping secrets in a small college town that seems as full of spies as cold-war Berlin. The book is worth reading for the description of Dixon's facial expressions alone.

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
Summer 1972. A child is molested and murdered in Spring Hill, a safe and prosperous town near Washington. A family breaks up. A president is implicated in a robbery. A new neighbor moves in next door to Marsha Eberhardt, the 10-year-old protagonist of Berne's powerful first novel. Narrating as an adult, Marsha examines the way her reckless -- and utterly convincing -- attempt to solve the various crimes in her neighborhood has haunted her throughout her life. With remarkable skill, Berne exposes the fear and insecurity that lie just beneath the manicured surfaces of suburbia.

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The Snapper by Roddy Doyle
Part of Doyle's acclaimed Barrytown Trilogy, which also includes "The Commitments" and "The Van," "The Snapper" registers the surprising fallout of an unmarried 20-year-old Dublin woman's announcement that she's pregnant but won't name the father. The inevitable revelation of the man's identity triggers a series of events and reversals in her working-class neighborhood that is as satisfying as it is unpredictable. A bonus: Doyle writes the best dialogue of any novelist now working -- period.


Tom Perrotta

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